Editor's note: An earlier version of this story referred to Supreme Court Judge Hon. Clint Bolick's JPR rating incorrectly. According to the Arizona Commission on Judicial Performance Review, Bolick scored 97 percent for communication and 98 percent for judicial temperament. The Arizona 2018 General Election Publicity Pamphlet published Bolick’s scores incorrectly.
How many Arizona voters dutifully fill out their ballot, then go blank when they're tasked with reaffirming state and local judges? No one will know the difference, says the average voter's inner monologue. Who can keep track of every judge's performance anyway?
However, purveyors of democracy can enter the voting booth informed about how appointed justices conduct themselves, thanks to a state panel tasked with evaluating jurists' performances.
For the last six years, voters are increasingly paying attention to how the Arizona Commission on Judicial Performance Review assesses judges facing a reaffirmation election, said chair Mike Hellon.
Arizona judges are very sensitive to how the commission and public votes, Hellon said. A handful of “no” votes from the commission can sway public opinion by about 10 percentage points during an election, he said.
But who makes up the JPR commission, or the people who are tasked with judging judges, and how reliable is their opinion?
In 1974, Arizona voters decided to switch to a merit-based system for appointing state Supreme Court justices, as well as appellate and trial court judges in the state’s most populous areas, which include Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties.
Since then, four nominating commissions were created to screen judicial candidates, which are ultimately appointed by the governor.
The merit-based nominating system aims to promote judicial impartiality, because judges aren’t seeking campaign contributions from the communities they serve.
Then, in 1992, Arizona voters moved to amend the state constitution for judicial selection and review, which increased the number of non-lawyers on the nominating commission, created the Commission on Judicial Performance Review and made the entire process public.
The front-end of Arizona’s merit system is the nominating commission, while the JPR is responsible for conducting a standards-based evaluation of a judge’s performance, Hellon said. And Arizona’s merit selection process is generally regarded as one of the best in the country, he said.
On Nov. 6, voters will decide whether to reaffirm 16 judges serving at the state and county level.
Every two years, the job performance of Arizona's superior court judges in its three largest counties are evaluated by jurors, litigants, people who chose to self represent and attorneys. On an ongoing basis, appellate judges and justices are evaluated in writing by attorneys and administrative judges.
Midway through a judge's six-year term, surveys are sent to court staff, staff attorneys and peer judges.
From January to April of the year a judge’s term will expire, the JPR commission again sends surveys to people who have observed a judge at work.
Survey recipients are asked whether a judge meets the JPR commission performance standards on a five-point scale, ranging from “superior” to “unacceptable.”
The JPR commission evaluates judicial performance based on five standards:
Legal ability, demonstrating competent legal analysis
Integrity, administering judgment bias free
Communication skills, issuing prompt and clear decisions
Judicial temperament, displaying a dignified, courteous and patient demeanor
Administrative performance, managing courtroom and office effectively
By July, the survey data is compiled and analyzed, and the commission holds a public meeting where they vote whether a judge is performing by state standards.
It’s an exhaustive process, Hellon said. But after sifting through the information and conducting any necessary interviews with sitting judges, he said, the commission “coalesces a broad picture of how a judge is performing in the courtroom.”
“And the most important thing to the commission is how the particular judge treats someone in the courtroom,” Hellon said.
The JPR commission is composed of 34 members, which include 21 private citizens, seven judges and six lawyers. Commissioners are chosen by Arizona Chief Justice, who serves a five-year term after being selected by their fellow Supreme Court justices.
However, due to scheduling conflicts, only 29 of the JPR commission members cast votes this year.
One of the common criticisms of the commission is that the group is controlled by lawyers and judges, Hellon said. “But that’s clearly not the case.”
By design, even if many of the commission’s public members are absent, they still hold a majority, he said.
Local voters are interested in the reaffirmation process.
About 40 people lined the Republican Club of Green Valley-Sahuarita headquarters on Thursday to hear former Justice of the Peace Hon. Gail Wight discuss how she decides whether to reaffirm Arizona’s various judges.
Using the Arizona 2018 General Election Publicity Pamphlet as a guide, Wight explained to the audience what she looks for and potential red flags.
Before she began, Wight offered one caveat: while she can provide some insight, it’s up to an individual when it comes to the actual voting.
Throughout her career on the bench, Wight participated in a handful of JPR commission surveys, which she described as a judge’s “report card.”
First, she reviewed the performance survey results for Judge Clint Bolick, who has served on the Arizona Supreme Court since 2016.
Twenty-seven JPR commissioners voted to reaffirm Bolick, while two commissioners abstained, which is procedural and not viewed as a negative statement, according to the JPR commission standards.
Wight said she is apprehensive about, and will probably vote against reaffirming, any judge who scores below 90 percent in any category.
Throughout Wight’s talk, Malinda Sherwyn, a self-proclaimed “court watcher,” interrupted the direction of the conversation, at times impeding the focus of the group. The various interjections were somewhat balanced by questions from attendees.
One audience member asked if Wight trusts the opinion of an attorney, which was met with collective laughter from the audience.
Dodging the slight, Wight said the JPR commission survey results are property vetted, and she’s based her vote on them for many years.
Valerie Pollack, who recently relocated to Green Valley from Illinois with her husband, Jim, said she happened by the Republican Club headquarters to pick up voter registration information and become better acquainted with Arizona politics.
Pollack said the reaffirmation of judges in Illinois is similar to Arizona, but in the past she has mainly relied on various news reports about rulings or major cases.
“And it’s hard to determine everything about a judge unless you’re familiar with every case,” Pollack said, unless a case affects someone personally or it gains national interest.
She said while the JPR commission information is helpful, she’ll take the survey responses in stride because of potential for personal bias.
So come November, Pollack said she’ll use a cross section of news reports and the commission results for casting her vote for a sitting judge.
Overall, she said the best practice is to strive to become an informed voter.
“And this [forum] is an example, for us to become more educated about how things are done in Arizona, that maybe different than what we’re used to,” Pollack said.
David J. Del Grande | 547-9732